Among its other functions, the WTO serves as a forum where trade practices of its member states can be discussed. Much of this work happens in WTO Committees, which cover a large range of trade-related topics in their day to day work. Often overlooked, this is a policymaking level where reform proposals can make a real difference. First, because working practices are easy to change, no treaty change is required. Second, some trade issues can better be resolved at this technical level before they get politicized. Two new GED publications make suggestions on how committee work at the WTO can become more efficient and forward-looking.

GED has two new publications that look into working practices in WTO committees and make suggestions for improved efficiency and agenda-setting at this level of policymaking. Both papers have been authored by Robert Wolfe, who is also the author of a paper we published in 2018 on improved institutional learning within the WTO. Together, these papers offer a package of measures that could improve the daily business at the WTO and make it more salient for member states to invest political capital in this vital institution of trade policymaking.

The paper on institutional learning serves as a backdrop to the two new publications. The WTO is the only international organization that currently does not have a built-in function for institutional learning. Better institutional learning would ultimately lead to better information on member state trade practices. Better information might help Members navigate current negotiation impasses, which is an incidental benefit of a discussion in each committee about whether the organization is doing as well as it can in monitoring current obligations.

The two new papers build directly on the idea that improved working practices can help with navigating negotiation impasses. One of the most dramatic negotiation impasses is the failure to move forward on the blockage of the Appellate Body. As the nomination of a new panel member has been blocked, the second stage of the dispute settlement mechanism has been effectively disabled. But very few trade controversies actually end up as a trade dispute, and even fewer are eventually handed to the Appellate Body. The first step in a trade conflict is usually to raise a “Specific Trade Concerns” (STCs), i.e., inquiries and complaints about trade policy practices from one member state to another. The first of the two papers looks into the use of STCs.

Officials also need to be able to talk to each other about implementation, which they do in dozens of committee meetings every year. In those meetings, they often raise STCs on behalf of their firms. Most often, these concerns about laws, regulations, or practices are addressed by their trading partners. Only a relative handful cannot be resolved this way and are raised as formal disputes. One reason is that discussion of STCs can mitigate some sources of friction, sometimes by modification or withdrawal of a measure.

While STCs offer a good tool to deal with trade tensions at a low level, they remain an underused tool. Usage is fairly uneven across country groups – developed countries are much more likely to raise them then developing ones, which has to do with capacity constraints. Our paper makes suggestions on how the STC tool could be made available more widely and more effectively.

Another criticism of WTO committees is that they stay very close to only the implementation of WTO agreements. Very rarely, they adopt a forward-looking perspective, although a future-orientated agenda can be very meaningful in making the WTO more relevant to its member states. Tools that can foster a more forward-looking and inclusive approach are so-called “thematic sessions” by WTO committees, i.e., sessions that deal with issues related to a committee’s remit but are not narrowly focussed on the implementation of an agreement. Often, they bring together not only trade representatives but also capital officials from different agencies, experts, and other stakeholders. Such thematic sessions are the subject of the second new paper.

This paper finds that thematic sessions are very unevenly used in different WTO committees. Again, developing countries are often less frequently present in such meetings or participate in their organization. Our paper recommends creating a central budget for such meetings, a systematic approach to use them to address substantive gaps in the issues discussed, and to improve documentation and transparency of such meetings. Lessons can be learned from other international organizations that employ similar types of meetings more widely.

Improving working practices may sound relatively unsexy. But this is the low hanging fruit in WTO reform. Working practices can be reformed relatively easily, and they can have a large effect on how efficient and dynamic work within the organization is.